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Iran’s Retaliatory Strikes on Israel are Aimed at Restoring Deterrence

The failure of the West to condemn Israel meant that Iran had no option but to avenge the strike in Damascus.

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Iran has hit Israeli military bases in retaliatory strikes this morning with a barrage of suicide drones and a cocktail of various missiles. This is the first time a foreign power has struck the Israeli mainland since Saddam Hussein struck it with his Scuds. However, it was a long time coming.

Earlier this month, Israeli F-35 Jets hit the Iranian Embassy complex in Damascus killing the top Iranian Military Advisor in Syria Brigadier Reza Zahedi in a move that was a blatant violation of the Vienna Convention of which both Israel and Iran are signatories. By all accounts, the US was informed just minutes before the strike. The US, through its back channel communicators, informed Iran that it had nothing to do with this reckless move.

However, very soon, the US changed track. Iranians demanded a full-fledged UNSC condemnation but it was scuttled by the US, the UK and France; Israel’s iron-clad allies. The US through its media outlets also tried to create an impression that it was not a diplomatic building and that Israel might not be in violation. This has no legal validity in International Law. Only Iran and Syria can decide which buildings in Damascus are diplomatic property. The third party has no locus standi on this. This sleight-of-hand tactic by the US left Iran with no option but to strike Israel and restore deterrence.

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Military Details of Iran's Attack

Israel has been killing Iranian scientists and generals for several years now through its assets. However, targeting the embassy building was an unhinged move. It also appears that Benjamin Netanyahu did not think it through. Several Israeli military commentators admitted in the run-up to the Iranian retaliation that they had underestimated the Iranian appetite for retaliation.

As the details emerge, it appears that the Iranians first sent around 200 odd Suicide Drones to exhaust the Israeli Air-Defence (AD) batteries and then use the gap to pump Cruise and Ballistic Missiles. Israel has one of the world’s most dense AD coverage with David’s Sling, Hatez 1, Hatez 2, Hatez 3 and US’ Patriot and THAAD Systems. And while many of the drones and missiles were intercepted, visual evidence suggests that many of the drones and missiles hit their target.

It appears that Iran’s most advanced Khyber-Shekan Hypersonic Medium Range Ballistic Missiles managed to defeat the Israeli and American AD systems and hit bases in the Negev Desert as well as the Naqab region. Nevatim Airbase, which houses the F-35 Jets that targeted the Iranian Embassy Complex in Damascus, received hits. Videos of missiles successfully using decoy bomblets to confuse the AD systems have emerged.

The Iranian Permanent Representative to the UN has released a statement saying that their revenge has been completed, but if Israel escalates, they are also ready to climb the escalatory ladder.

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Why Would Iran Do This?

Iran seems to have achieved a lot of its tactical and strategic goals with these strikes deep inside Israel. It has not only restored deterrence with Israel, it has also given a signal to the US that its assets—both men and material—across its bases in the Middle East are sitting ducks. If Israel with the world’s densest AD deployment could not stop the attack completely, what chance did the American bases have with stretched-thin AD systems?

It also wants to send a signal to the wider Islamic World that when big Sunni military powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were collaborating with Tel Aviv, it is Iran—a Shia nation—that came to help the Palestinians the overwhelmingly vast majority of which are Sunnis.

Militarily also, by the back-of-the-napkin calculation, Iran has just used 1.8-2.0 Percent of its Ballistic Missile arsenal. At the same time, Israel has squandered several times more of its AD ammunition in just downing Suicide Drones. If Israel escalates, every new wave of Iranian attack will keep depleting its precious AD ammunition to the point where the famed Iron Dome shall become an Iron Sieve, so to speak.

This also creates a rift between Netanyahu—who is increasingly using messianic language and wants to save his skin—and other Israeli leaders who realise that they are in a very precarious situation.

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And What of the West?

NATO’s reaction has been measured. It very clearly doesn’t want to fight on two fronts when it is stretched thin in Ukraine. In the Red Sea, its naval coalition is in tatters under pressure from the Houthis-dominated Ansarallah. Under the circumstances, it does not want to be dragged into another war by Netanyahu. The statement by the US suggests that it will take a diplomatic move with its G-7 coterie and will avoid any military escalation against Iran.

Much of it has to do with President Biden facing an unprecedented headwind in the election year. The vast majority of Democrat voters abhor Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza. They will most definitely not want body bags to start coming to the US. The same goes for a majority of undecided or centrist voters whose support is essential for Biden to defeat the resurgent Donald Trump.

Right on cue, the press plugged into the US security and military establishment has started to downplay the Iranian strikes and brand it a failure. It is to satiate a section of the domestic audience inside the US as Israel who want to escalate. This is a clear indication that NATO wants to de-escalate.

However, President Biden needs to get out of the optics mode. No one buys the argument that he has no control over the Israelis. All it needs is one phone call by him and Netanyahu will know who’s the boss. And no amount of pressure from Israeli lobbies like AIPAC can stop that. However, he needs to show political will which seems to have escaped at this time.

This leaves us with Tel Aviv. The ball is quite really in Netanyahu’s court now. If he wants to push the region into a wider war, be rest assured that Tehran has little or no qualms. Restoring deterrence is important for Iran. Any escalation by Israel will be retaliated again, and this time with more devastating effect. An Israeli attack on Iranian civil infrastructure will bring Israeli nuclear plants on the Iranian crosshair too. And then, all bets shall be off.

(Saurabh Kumar Shahi is a journalist specialising in West and South Asian Affairs with a special interest in the inter-religious and intra-Islamic conflict in the region. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Israel-Palestine 

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